August 22, 2017
Dear Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche,
I would like to thank you very much for taking the time to post your reflections about the “Guru and Student in the Vajrayana” on your Facebook Page on August 14. (Click here for Facebook post, or formatted version on Buddhistdoor.)
I did read your post several times, as you suggested, and reflected on it for a few days. I used to be someone trying to be a genuine Vajrayana practitioner, but after reading what you said, I am not sure if I ever was. In any case, I still do aim to be a genuine spiritual practitioner.
We met a few times. You might remember me most from when I was Sogyal Rinpocheʻs attendant when he visited your Sea to Sky Center in 1993. It might be a surprise to you that the same person you met then is writing this letter to you. But I suspect it will not come as a surprise to you that questions might come your way after writing your article. I would love to get answers, but please feel no pressure. It would be deeply appreciated, but is not expected. If anything in this letter sparks your interest, and you happen to get bored in a question and answer session with your students, I would love to get a recording.
You say you are not familiar with the Rigpa set-up, which makes it hard for you to say anything more definitive. So I thought it might be helpful to share with you my experience in Rigpa.
How I Was Introduced to Samaya
I met Sogyal Rinpoche in 1987 at a public talk held at the Rigpa London Center, which happened to take place one evening during the time I attended my first ten-week meditation course there. Towards the end of the course, I saw an announcement for an Easter Retreat at the center. I asked one of the senior students if that retreat was open to and would be suitable for beginners like me. The answer was: “Yes absolutely! Youʻll love it.”
On this retreat, Sogyal Rinpoche taught “Tsik Sum Ne Dek” (“Hitting the Essence in Three Words”), a high Dzogchen teaching. I had a powerful, life-changing experience. I remember vividly how being on the retreat was like being in a different reality. I figured since Rinpoche told us that he introduced the nature of mind, what I experienced must have something to do with the nature of mind.
Of course, I did realize quite quickly that I hadn’t fully realized it, due to the obvious fact that I couldn’t sustain the experience. And after trying for 30 years, I still canʻt do that very much. But it definitely made enlightenment a tangible and possible goal. I saw it dangle right in front of me.
I remember that, at this time, when I would meditate, I thought if I could meditate the right way, then enlightenment would just click into place. What I felt was maybe similar to what you described as “unexpected eruption of pious feelings” in your letter, and people who had “very little room left in their minds for further analysis, because emotionally they just wanted to ‘jump!’”
Reading Erik Pema Kunsangʻs recent article, Club NonDualité, also makes me wonder, not for the first time by the way, whether what I got was just a pure state of dualistic mind. That would make sense, because I donʻt have experiences where risings naturally liberate themselves.
Many students have asked questions about this many times and Sogyal Rinpoche usually advised them to trust they got a glimpse, trust on some level they already have realized it even though it may not be conscious and clear, and pray and keep practicing. Realization will happen, glimpse after glimpse after glimpse. At least that is what I heard. Many years later, I did receive the more detailed teachings clarifying the difference between ordinary mind and the nature of mind.
What I heard from Sogyal Rinpoche with respect to the Dzogchen samaya, that comes with the the fourth abhisheka, was that once you are introduced to the nature of mind, the teacher who introduced you becomes your root guru and there is commitment on both the side of the student and the teacher.
What I understood is that the most important commitment is toward enlightenment. That in Dzogchen the samaya is the Samaya to the View, to seeing without delusion. If you are in the View, the samaya is intact. Since Sogyal Rinpoche obviously knew we couldn’t do that completely at this point, he said practically this means to aspire to this.
At times, students voiced concerns about the scary aspects of samaya because they had heard traditional teachings on the topic or bits and pieces like the torment of “vajra hell.” Sogyal Rinpoche usually attempted to allay their concerns. He stressed the essential meaning behind these teachings: To honor a deep commitment to enlightenment and the sacred heart connection that’s made when the teaching is transmitted. I was still uncomfortable with some aspects of samaya, but the way he presented it seemed reasonable.
The other thing I learned about samaya, as I went along, was that once this connection was established and a teacher and student had made a deep bond, negativity on the part of the student would effect the well-being and even the life span of both parties.
I am not trying to make excuses here, but to answer your question: Were students fully aware what a Vajrayana initiation entails, had requested it, and received it completely? Looking back, I would say, for me and many otherʻs, the entrance into Vajrayana samaya was not a conscious informed choice. The road post did not say: “Enlightenment or Vajra Hell!“ There was no initial warning sign that said: “Beyond this point, no way back!”
Of course, if you stuck around and began to follow the teachings, you heard more teachings about samaya. And if you wanted to follow Rinpoche seriously and receive the Dzogchen teachings systematically, he required you to commit to following him as your main teacher until enlightenment.
I also want to point out that, in my opinion, Sogyal Rinpoche taught in this non-traditonal way out of compassion so modern people could relate to the amazing treasures that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition holds.
In terms of the Vajrayana, the way I entered was seeing its practices as support for Dzogchen. People doing prostrations and other Ngöndro practices seemed very strange at first. I tried to have an open mind, but also took my time. Slowly, I got over my resistance and started to do the Ngöndro practices. Intellectually, it made sense to me that they would help purify obscurations, so I gave them a chance.
I now truly appreciate Ngöndro. It took me almost 20 years to complete the numbers that you’re supposed to accumulate. Although I tried to do Ngöndro the right way, to be honest a lot of it could not be recorded as more than just completing numbers. Looking back I don’t see that the practices really helped me remove deep emotional and cognitive obscurations. I’m not saying this is the fault of the practices. I can see how they could do that and that I probably didn’t practice them the right way.
Sogyal Rinpoche never gave Vajrayana empowerments until 2003, when he gave the first Tendrel Nyesel empowerment, which he has given 17 times since then (according to the records on the rigpawiki.org.) But I got a lot of empowerments because Sogyal Rinpoche invited many great masters and encouraged us to get as many empowerments as we could from them mainly as a blessing and seed for the future.
Vajrayana was not our main path, but a support for Dzogchen. It was part of the preliminaries. I donʻt think I entered formally, but as I went along I heard the teachings on samaya and pure perception and the commitments, and in even more detail when I began with the practice of the three roots. We were told not to worry too much about the traditional things, but to focus on the main point of samaya as your heart connection.
In your letter, you emphasized that Vajrayana needs to be properly introduced. What I understood from your letter is that even though an authentic Vajra Master can pretty much do whatever they see fit, the relationship needs to be properly established. You say the Vajrayana teachings lay this out clearly. From this point of view, I would say I was not properly introduced, neither to the Vajryana nor the Dzogchen Samaya. If I manage to get a good lawyer, I think I have good chance to argue in Vajrayana court that my contract was not valid.
However, practically speaking, I have felt (and still feel), as do many of my sangha brothers and sisters, a deep heart connection with Sogyal Rinpoche because of the profound teachings I received from him.
When accusations of abuse were made seven years after I met Sogyal Rinpoche, samaya suddenly became a much more serious matter. I felt like I was asked to see Sogyal Rinpocheʻs behavior purely, but for me this meant giving up my personal sense of integrity. From my perspective, this was not healthy. Because l did not consciously enter into such an agreement, I was not prepared for such a big leap. This might have been a misunderstanding of samaya on my part.
I believe we need to be aware of and be respectful of our sacred connection with Sogyal Rinpoche. However, given we were introduced so informally, where does that leave us in terms of the traditional samaya?
What To Do If Samaya Is Not Clearly Established?
Since we did not consciously agree to the strict rules in the tantras, are we now bound by them? Or should our commitment to maintain samaya be based on the essential meaning that Sogyal Rinpoche explained to us? That would mean striving to maintain a positive connection, not allowing our actions be tainted by negative emotions, keeping a tender heart and an open mind, and trying to avoid harm as much as we can. Looking at it this way, it seems to me that maintaining a good heart connection and voicing criticism is not necessarily incompatible. It depends on the place you are coming from, your intention.
Considering that the way most of us in Rigpa entered into the Vajrayana was quite informal and unconventional, and thus unclear, would a positive step forward be for both students and teacher to clarify and review their Vajrayana commitments? I think it would be important for people to know that, after reflecting and looking into their hearts, they are free to decide whether or not to continue at a level that is appropriate for them. If there were a Supreme Court of the Vajrayana world, I’m sure these issues would land on its desk to consider how the rules of Vajrayana would best be applied to this situation and in the modern world in general. In the absence of such definitive advice, Sogyal Rinpoche and other masters could give advice on how a student can review commitments and make a conscious and informed decision.
You also brought up the question whether part of the problem might be that Sogyal Rinpoche did not have the full formal training that Vajrayana teachers usually go through. This possibility might make a lot of his students very uncomfortable. Are there any qualified masters that could do a peer review with Sogyal Rinpoche and look at how he is working personally with students? Of course, journalists will ask to sit in and stream it live with commentary, but such a process could happen privately and respectfully ending with an essential statement of those involved. Simply to know that it has happened would help to restore trust, especially with anyone who feels they do not sufficiently know the teachings or Sogyal Rinpoche well enough to come to a personal conclusion.
I personally believe that to process this scandal an honest look at the situation is healthy. I would not say everyone needs to engage in this but information should be available to those who feel they need to. Realistically, the only way to make the process accessible to all current and previous members of the Rigpa community is for it to be public. That is why I’m posting this letter to you publicly.
Even though my perspective is critical, my intention is to contribute to turning this situation into a positive experience of learning and spiritual growth for the students, the community as a whole, and the teachers. After all the articles that have been posted, anything that contributes to a more balanced and responsible view will, in my view, improve the situation. I also believe that the wider Buddhist community could learn something useful from how we address the current situation.
What If You Realize Your Path Does Not Work?
In a nutshell, here is my story of “non-liberation” that may help you understand my perspective better. At the end of the three-year retreat, I realized that something was not right on my spiritual path. After working with this realization and reflecting upon it for seven years, I came to the conclusion that Sogyal Rinpocheʻs way of teaching did not work for me. Looking back, it is clear that I was heading towards a physical and psychological breakdown. I deeply felt something was wrong and that my practice was not able to resolve it.
I did not consciously plan this, but I ended up in Hawaii, which interestingly is as far away from Lerab Ling as you can be on this earth. I figured I better go back to the basics, meditation and other foundational teachings, to figure out what I didn’t understand and why my practice was not working. The last thing I was looking for was another spiritual tradition, let alone another Guru. But opportunities to explore healing approaches from other traditions and Western Psychology came my way. I tried them out and found them a beneficial support for my spiritual path that also helped me look at my blockages.
After a few years, I noticed that one of the new teachers I had met seemed to be connected to me in what I can only describe as an inner wisdom voice, which uncannily guided me through working with my emotional and conceptual obscurations. This guidance was kind, wise, non-judgmental. More and more, the connection I felt to this inner guide in my heart seemed similar to the way Sogyal Rinpoche talked about his connection with his Gurus. Giving back my commitments to Sogyal Rinpoche was not planned, but eventually it happened.
I let this process happen in a conscious and slow way over five years. I made a good effort to own my own negativity and resentments about my time in Rigpa and to remove them as much as possible, so I could express gratitude for what I had received. I asked Sogyal Rinpoche for his blessing to move on to study with this teacher.
Just to be clear, I’m not telling anyone they should go to another teacher. If anyone would ask me about this, I would tell them to think about this very deeply. I would say not to have any illusions that there are other spiritual communities where basic human problems do not exist. At least, I have not found one. The basic principles behind the practices I am currently doing are in line with the Buddhist teachings. I continue to tremendously respect and appreciate the Buddhist teachings and still consider myself part of the Rigpa sangha.
Why Do Westerners Not Examine Their Teacher?
I am an example of the kind of Westerner that you describe who has dedicated their life to following this path, and tried to do everything the Guru asked. I agree with you that it’s puzzling why Westerners do not examine their teacher and why it takes them decades to realize something is wrong. I look back now and ask myself in utter amazement: “How could I have possibly stayed for so long in what I now clearly see was not a healthy situation for me?“
Sometimes, I can laugh about it all. Sometimes, I feel like crying. The short answer is that somehow I checked some cognitive and emotional functions that are necessary for self-responsibility and self-care at the door. The way I heard it, letting go of the judgments of my ego was the offering that Sogyal Rinpoche asked from us so that he could give and we could receive the teachings.
I was unable to notice the warning signs because I saw them as doubts. What I heard in the teachings was to not doubt and instead to trust. There were always explanations that put any criticism about Sogyal Rinpoche into question, even ones made by respected teachers like the Dalai Lama. Teachers like you (and many others) came to our centers and praised Sogyal Rinpoche in ways that gave me the impression you regarded him as an authentic teacher and therefore, his way of teaching must be without fault.
I’m not saying that Sogyal Rinpoche is not an authentic teacher. He is an amazingly gifted teacher and many, including myself, have benefitted in countless ways from his teachings and guidance.
Learning From Mistakes
It is said that even if we have the best intentions, we can still make mistakes. What you wrote suggests that this can also apply to Gurus. I heard you say that students are supposed to see critical thoughts and judgments about the Guru as their own projection. But you also said, “…when your Guru chairs a board meeting and it becomes obvious that he has no clue about an issue, as a prudent member of that board you shouldn’t hesitate to supply him with the information he needs. At the same time, as a Vajrayana student, you must skillfully remind yourself the Guru only looks clueless to you because of your own impure perception, and that by appearing to need your assistance the Guru is actually giving you the chance to accumulate merit.” So what should you do if concerned individuals have reported, over the course of 30 years, that some students feel deeply harmed by the Guru’s behavior, and how he’s dealing with the issue is clearly still not working?
To me it seems very obvious that something is not right. I am not quite sure what. From a perspective of pure perception, maybe everything is happening as it should? Could it be that Sogyal Rinpoche intended for these people to go through this experience, to feel harmed the way they have, to feel unsupported by the community, to lose trust in him as a teacher, and create a public scandal? That would imply he also intended to sacrifice his reputation and for this public discussion to take place, perhaps so it could reveal the problems and bring positive change.
In either case, I believe there is no choice now but to have a honest look at what is not right if we want to be sure this issue doesn’t continue to surface, again and again. Unless of course, one takes the stance that the benefit that Sogyal Rinpoche brings is so great that it outweighs the harm that is reported by some and that these experiences should be ignored as side effects of a powerful medicine. Spock, from the Starship Enterprise, might argue the need of the many outweighs the needs of the few. But the FDA would not approve this medicine. To consider the experiences of those who feel harmed as acceptable collateral damage, like Army generals justify civilian injuries in a war, does also not seem consistent with a spiritual view. You wrote something that could be perceived as promoting this last point, but I don’t think you meant it that way.
What I have learned, and what I found works for me, is this: If you want to solve a problem you need to take full responsibility for it first. This means, at the beginning, completely leaving aside the question of whose fault it is. This means dropping the victim attitude of “Poor me, I have been harmed,” or “He/she harmed me,” or “He/she does not understand me and is blaming me unjustly,” or “It is the other students fault if one of them misunderstands and complains,” or “It is the Westerner’s fault!” or “It is the Tibetanʻs fault!” or “Hearing the allegations were made public is really painful for me, how could those people write the letter?”
My new teacher says thoughts like this indicate you are playing the victim. The karma postman never delivers a package to the wrong door and the package will keep coming to your door until you’re able to open it and learn the lesson it contains. When you have gone through this process a bit and are able to begin to see and own your own emotions and projections then you can share your experience and the insights you gained with others much more effectively.
If Sogyal Rinpoche wanted to take this approach, he would have to take full responsibility for the behavior he manifested. Other teachers would have to look at how they might have contributed to the situation. The community and the organization would have to look honestly at how they contributed to a situation that allowed some people to feel harmed.
I probably don’t have many friends left after saying this, so let me sugar coat this bitter pill a little: I have found this advice useful. I am not quite done with taking full responsibility yet but I can attest it is working and am making good progress. I’m not saying to anybody they should do this if they don’t feel ready. It is something you might want to consider doing voluntarily, however. I can attest that it is quite painful but might be very healing.
One question I have is whether the practice of samaya and pure perception are compatible with the idea of self-responsibility? And if not, how Vajrayana can exist in this world in any way besides a secret path that selected students are invited to enter consciously with full understanding by a qualified teacher? Like you said, the famous examples of the students and teachers who engaged in an authentic Vajrayana path, knew they might get beaten up or thrown into prison and didn’t care if that happened. And as you pointed out in your letter, the roles of a public Buddhist teacher and true Vajrayana teacher do not seem compatible.
The Bigger Picture
You also encouraged us to look at the bigger picture. As much as I have tried to question this conclusion, I can’t shake a deep sense that there might be some subtle unhealthy dynamics in the way Tibetan Buddhism is practiced. Not just in our community but other places too.
I personally have come to the conclusion that I was following the path in the wrong way. That was not a comfortable thing to look at and to acknowledge after dedicating 25 years, half of my life, to it. I take solace that to see delusion is said to be an incredible accomplishment, a good start, and even half the journey. One thing I realize is that I was under the delusion that I could bypass looking at my stuff. I thought if I would just keep doing what I was asked to, all my obscurations would magically go away and I would miraculously emerge as a fully functioning enlightened being.
In the last seven years, I have gained a much deeper self-understanding of how my mind and heart works, how much I had repressed and disassociated from my experiences, and how I was unconscious of my obscurations. As I understand it, Rigpa generally means supreme intelligence or awareness. In Dzogchen, Rigpa has a deeper connotation, it means the inner most nature of mind, an even more profound primordially pure pristine awareness. How could awareness liberate what it is not aware of? How could I possibly think liberation of confusion, not to even speak of self-liberation, could happen if I was not conscious of my emotional and cognitive processes and obscurations? From what I can see, many others in my community and possibly the wider Buddhist world might be falling into a similar hole and like me, not even be aware of it.
Looking at the bigger picture of this scandal, I wonder whether an unhealthy way of teaching and following the dharma has contributed to allowing my confusion to go unchallenged for so long. Maybe it was just me and everyone except me is a perfect Dharma practitioner and heading smoothly towards enlightenment. Even if this is the case, I don’t think I will do any harm for anyone to do a reality check by having an honest look and asking some tough questions. That is all I’m suggesting. If you donʻt find any problems, it will help you confirm that you’re on the right track. For some, this might be uncomfortable and painful, especially if you notice some things that need attention. But if you stick with it until you come to your own conclusions, I don’t think it will harm you.
The Need for More Self-Understanding
Ultimately, if students could have enough self-understanding of their baggage and have tools and support, they would have the capacity to make their own choices and be able to process experiences that might come up in the Vajrayana Guru-Student relationship. If everyone — student, teacher and community — takes responsibility then the rules that many are advocating for and many others passionately oppose, as an infringement of their right of religious freedom, may not all be necessary. Establishing this will require a lot of work. And I don’t see how this could happen without looking into the insights and methods of Western Psychology.
Another way of expressing this is that you need to have a healthy ego before you can give it up. It would have been much better for me to first work through my stuff and become a healthy and joyful person before thinking about enlightenment. Instead, I thought I could bypass my stuff and directly go to enlightenment. Many people would probably be satisfied being happy and joyful and simply being a member of a spiritual community. And only those who feel drawn to the challenging path of full enlightenment would proceed further.
This seemed to be the situation in Tibet where the society was spiritual, but only a few really pursued the goal of enlightenment seriously. I personally am still interested in enlightenment. But I believe I lack a necessary foundation for my spiritual path and that it would be futile to try to progress with higher practices. That’s why I am presently taking some steps going back and am focusing on the basics of becoming a healthy human being.
Can Scandal Become a Cause of Positive Change?
My wife Sandra and I have set up a web site as a space for healthy, balanced and reasonable discussion and reflection on questions like these at howdidthishappen.org. We envision it as a place where people can learn about and understand the different issues that have been brought up by this scandal, better appreciate the different views, and come to their own conclusions.
I appreciate also that you put this issue into perspective by pointing out that Buddhism has weathered much heavier storms and we can look at this scandal as a test of resilience. I heard Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche once told Sogyal Rinpoche that time will tell because in the winds of time the dust blows away and the gold remains. Right now this still looks like a complicated mess with many questions and no easy answers. So maybe a lot of dust still has to blow away. I hope that good can come from this, real change that will allow the Buddhist teachings to flourish even more. I hope that we will be able to look back at this in 10 or 20 years and be grateful for what we learned.
I am sorry, I have probably given you a headache. Still, this is quite a bit shorter than your post ;-). If you got to this point, thank you for reading. If not, I want to say, I completely I understand, even if you wonʻt know.
Respectfully and with warm wishes,
P.S. I notice that your contagious humor and provocative writing style has been rubbing off on me, so if I went overboard at any point, please know that my intention is to express myself respectfully to you and everyone else I am referring to.
How are you processing and understanding Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s article? What questions do you have for him? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.